Saturday, January 21, 2006

Epic Mashup

The missus and I saw “The Chronicles of Narnia” last night. It was a very fine flick, and well done. This is really the first moment in film history when production technology can really do justice to fantasy stories. Which is why we have this wonderful bumper crop of fantasy and science fiction epics – Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the big dog, Star Wars.

Which suggests a rich possibility, which I hope some rogue film editors are already busily at work on: a mashup of all of them.

As I watched, for example, the battle scene in Narnia, it was hard not to remember similar moments from a similar battle in Lord of the Rings. Indeed, a few years ago I read a joint biography of the Inklings, the group of religious writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, which recounted the parallel course, and rivalry, of the writers and their series, played out in the Eagle and Child (or Bird and Baby) pub. A mashup of just these two films, intercut with the conversations of the writers around the pub table, would be fascinating.

Another excellent project for someone else to do. I would pay money to see it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Should We Skip Kids in Order to Get Rich?

Both Jay Zagorsky and Amalia Miller, whose studies we have been considering this week, are writing about families and wealth, especially for women. Putting the two studies together, we would get:

Women are richer if they delay childbirth past 30.
Men and women are richer if they stay married.
Projecting these two facts in a straight line would lead to the conclusion that the best way to end up rich is to stay married and not have kids.

Indeed, Waite and Gallagher, in The Case for Marriage, show that the biggest single material effect of marriage on women is that it makes them wealthier than they otherwise would be.

I can think of three reasons not to make a straight-line projection here, though.

First, parents, most especially men, work so hard at wealth generation because they have kids. In The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas Stanley and William Danko paint a picture of wealth generation as the work of a couple, not an individual: he plays good offense, bringing in a substantial income, and she plays good defense, limiting their spending. I read that through the Case for Marriage lens to see wealth generation as a family affair: the parents make and keep the money, because the kids need it. Remove any one of these three elements from the equation, and the family is just less likely to make and keep wealth.

Second, a couple without kids are less likely to stay married. A couple who are unable, or unwilling, to have kids together are at significant risk to divorce for that reason alone. Moreover, childless couples have a lower threshold for divorce, because there are no kids to hurt by splitting.

Third, I think few people are moved simply by a desire to make more money. Beyond a certain level of financial security, it takes a reason to make the sacrifices that devoting yourself to money-making requires. Spouse, kids, grandkids, familial posterity are reasons to make those sacrifices. Simply moving toward the right-hand tail of the income distribution is not.

So should we skip kids in order to get rich? Naw – there isn’t enough point to it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Marriage Builds Wealth

The study of the month is Jay Zagorsky’s “Marriage and divorce’s impact on wealth” in the Australian publication the Journal of Sociology. Zagorsky, an Ohio State sociologist, followed young Baby Boomers from youth to their 40s through the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Zagorsky found that on average, a couple’s net wealth increases 16% for each year they stay married. By their mid-40s, marrieds will have 77% more wealth per person than singles will. The divorced are even worse off, losing 3/4ths of their net worth. And that is only the size of the gap at 50, the limit of the NLSY79 data. Since the great majority of those couples will stay married and keep working, the gap at retirement should be even greater.

Zagorsky focuses on simple economies of scale – one household is cheaper than two. But sociologist David Popenoe, director of the National Marriage Project, points to a more powerful factor: married people work more and work harder because they are working for something greater than themselves. Zagorsky found that divorced people started losing wealth four years before the divorce. He speculates that they were already separated and keeping two households. I think, though, that Popenoe is pointing to the greater factor: people who are committed to a marriage work harder and longer because they are building up something greater. It is reasonable to think that people who eventually divorce start hedging their bets about investing in the marriage years before the final breakup.

Zagorsky’s reported results do not take into account what I think will prove to be the greatest factor in why married couples need to produce more wealth and produce it faster: they have kids to support. That is the next study we need: married parents vs. unmarried parents, looking at how much they make, and how much net wealth they end up with.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Is Parenthood Planned?

Yesterday I wrote about economist Amalia Miller’s finding that women make 10% more over their career for each year they delay having a first child. That was the main point of her study. Today I want to write about an incidental point she made, when she compared women who got pregnant on purpose with those who had unplanned pregnancies.

Miller used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which followed the same group of people from youth to early adulthood, beginning in 1979. Miller reports this question and response from one of the follow-up surveys:

“Just before you became pregnant the first time, did you want to become pregnant when you did?”
11.6% of respondents said “Yes,”
4.2% said “Didn’t matter,”
63.8% said “No, not at that time,” and
20.5% said “No, not at all.”

As Miller reads this response, the vast majority of these pregnancies were unplanned.

I contrast this, though, with Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ study which I have written about several times. Edin and Kefalas were studying teen single mothers, so their group is not directly comparable to the much broader NLSY79 population that Miller is using. Still, one of the vital findings of Promises I Can Keep is that most of the children these teen moms had were “sort-of planned.” They knew they wanted to have children, and they were ok with having children with their current boyfriends. So they didn’t try not to have children, with the usual result.

If Edin and Kefalas’s moms had been asked the NLSY79 question about whether they wanted to get pregnant then, most of them would have answered “no, not at this time.” Yet that would have been a misleading result. It did not mean, in their case, that their pregnancies were unplanned in the sense that Miller is reading them. For women of the professional class, who plan their lives carefully, a “not at this time” pregnancy is a disaster. For poor teenage girls whose biggest life plan is to be a mother, it is not.

I estimate that for most women in the classes in between -- most especially the married women -- a “not at this time” pregnancy is not a disaster. It is an early delivery of an expected gift. For most women, their job plans are made to serve their family plans, not the other way around.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

More Money for Later Moms?

University of Virginia economist Amalia Miller has made a small stir recently with her finding that women who delay having kids past their twenties make more money. The headline finding was that a year of delayed fertility leads to
• a 10% increase in career earnings,
• a 5% increase in career work experience, and
• a 3% increase in career average wage rate.

This finding has been troubling because it runs up against the fact that women’s fertility falls off significantly after their twenties.

SO, if a women wants to have kids, she should start having them before 30; if she wants to make money, she should have them after 30. Or not at all.

On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable conclusion. Kids cost money, both in direct costs and in the opportunities to make money that parents, especially moms, forego. You might see this as a tragic choice, or a choice between two different values.

I do see one problem with Miller’s account that I find troubling, though. She lumps together college graduates with graduate degree holders. Yet women pursuing graduate degrees would be more likely to be in school still in their mid-twenties, and would likely have higher earnings no matter what their fertility choices. Since the biggest returns come to managerial and professional women, this is the group in which the effect of delayed fertility for schooling and earnings affected by schooling should be greatest.

In other words, women with graduate and, especially, professional degrees are likely to make more in the long run anyway, regardless of whether they have kids or not. As a group, they are more likely to have kids later than other women. They skew the whole pool. It could be that they make more because they delayed starting motherhood. More likely, though, they make more because they trained for more lucrative professions. One side effect of their training was that they are less likely to have kids in their twenties.

Now women with graduate and professional degrees often do make a choice for career over children, sometimes by just waiting too long to start on kids. As I have lamented elsewhere, most women with Ph. D.s do not have any children. Some do it for the money, some for the career itself. I think that for most of the high-earning/low-momming women, though, they did not so much make a choice as make a “creeping non-choice,” and then live with the results. The evidence convinces me that most women do not pick their careers primarily to maximize lifetime earnings. People who do that are more likely to be men. Or economists.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King: Great Man. Cheater.

Today we celebrate the work of Martin Luther King. This is the 20th federal King holiday. Most of the population is too young to remember Dr. King in life, but there are few Americans who do not know his name and heroic stature in the civil right movement. Over the years, I think, the holiday has come to be more about the movement, and less about the man. Which is as it should be. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the necessary man in the civil rights movement, keeping the heart of it non-violent and focused on the prize. But it was the movement that was sacred, not the man.

The civil rights movement is now part of America’s sacred history. For many secular liberals I know, it is the only sacred part of American history. I live in Kentucky, where the effects of the Civil War are all around us. In years of watching Kentucky kids in quick recall (quiz bowl) tournaments, however, I have been impressed that the leaders and moments of the Civil War are not part of their basic knowledge – only the bookish kids know Lee and Grant, Gettysburg and Antietam. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, is obligatory. Rosa-Parks-Montgomery-bus-boycott is all one word. And it is always “the reverend doctor Martin Luther King junior.” The civil rights movement has now been absorbed into all-American history.

Martin King the man, though, is subject to less and less reverent treatment. Taylor Branch’s magisterial history of King and civil rights movement has reached the third volume, which is necessarily thick with King’s frequent and long-running adulteries. Previous volumes, and many other works on King which have been written and will be written, documented his plagiarism of parts of the dissertation that puts the doctor in Dr. King. Coretta King has been, I think, heroic in keeping her husband’s memory alive. His family, though, is clearly dysfunctional, with his children living on the commercialization of his memory, and squabbling in public about how best to capitalize on his name.

I am a Calvinist. I know that everyone (yes, especially me) is a sinner. I am not surprised at how much selfishness, short-sightedness, and even evil there is in the world; instead, I am even more grateful for goodness and generosity. So for me, I am not disillusioned to know Martin Luther King’s flaws. They are wrong and sad, but they do not make him unusually bad, or even unusual. Nor do King’s flaws undermine his heroic and crucial achievements as a leader of the great movement for the redemption of America from its original sin.

So cherish King Day, this living holiday of America’s civil religion. Teach the whole man, and his whole works.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Should Christians Dump the Public Schools? Nope.

American parents have many choices about education. The easiest and cheapest is to send your kids to public school, as all the Gruntled kids do. It is part of the social compact that everyone, whether they have kids in school or not, will pay for public education for all. Harder and more expensive is to send your kids to private school, where roughly 10% of children go. The hardest alternative, if you do it right, is homeschooling. It is also the most expensive in opportunity costs, though the cash outlay may be the lowest. Homeschooling is a minority of the minority of kids not in public school, but it is clearly growing, especially among families who are religiously dissatisfied with the public schools.

In recent years, though, there has been the beginnings of a movement to get Christians to withdraw from public schools altogether. It is, to be sure, a very small movement now, but, like homeschooling itself, it is likely to grow. The movement is fueled by the widespread and official effort to make the public schools religiously neutral, and the annual crop of foolish “Johnny got detention for bringing his Bible to school” errors. There are plenty of reasons for families of all kinds, especially religious conservatives, to conclude that their local schools are not the right place for their own children. Members of my own extended family have made that choice.

It is a big leap from concluding that the public schools aren’t right for me, to the decision that the public schools aren’t right for any Christians, or indeed for any religious people.

In 2004 two Southern Baptist laymen, lawyer Bruce Shortt and retired General T.C. Pinckney, brought a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention calling for all Southern Baptists to withdraw from the public schools. The convention’s Resolutions committee refused to report the proposal out, so Shortt and Pinckney made a similar proposal from the floor. It was defeated on a voice vote. Shortt, who is making a career of anti-public school activism, returned last year with a new partner to propose that the SBC investigate all public schools for a pro-homosexual agenda.

Every denomination has its hot-under-the-collar agitators of the left and the right. When a prominent seminary president weighs in on an issue, though, the stakes get higher. Al Mohler, of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, took the occasion of the 2005 Shortt proposal to proclaim, “I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools.”

I think it very unlikely that most Southern Baptists would leave the public schools, any more than they boycotted Disney when the SBC issued that call a few years ago. I do think, though, that there is unease among religious people that public schools are in danger of crossing a line from neutrality to hostility. The current “intelligent design” debate is making things worse, polarizing the science/religion distinction far more than the facts require.

Public schools are democratic institutions. The people who work in them are pretty ordinary members of their communities. Most schools accommodate the faith and practice of the people in them. The schools are governed by elected officials and paid for with taxes levied by elected officials. If the schools get too far out of line with community standards, the democratic remedy is available.